For 17 years, new charter schools hoping to open in Texas needed a simple majority vote from the State Board of Education—until last year, when a major reform law handed most of the board’s charter authority to the education commissioner. Board members were left with one important power: They could veto the commissioner’s picks.
The board used its power once last year, putting the kibosh on an Arizona-based charter chain’s application to open in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But late last month, board members were startled to learn that Education Commissioner Michael Williams had, by waiving a few state rules, given the school permission to open in North Texas anyway. His move has been especially contentious because of the school in question: Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies, a chain with deep roots in Arizona’s conservative political world, and former Rick Perry chief of staff Ray Sullivan for a lobbyist here in Texas.
This morning, board members grilled Williams about his decision and whether they should expect him to go over their heads like this in the future.
As Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight put it to Williams: “When is a veto not a veto?”
David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican who supported the school last year, told Williams that his decision to go around the veto, at the very least, suggested something wrong with the new system. “It’s ugly and it’s not working well,” Bradley said.
Williams had a neat deflection. “Mr. Bradley, I’d like to say, I did not override your veto. … The commissioner has authority in this area that is broader, that is deeper than you do. I found another avenue to do what I thought was in the best interests of children.”
He added that his call was based on satisfying another aspect of the new law, a mandate to encourage well-established, high-performing charters around the country to open campuses in Texas. “We want to extend the [message] that the doors of Texas are open,” Williams said. More than a year after the law passed, the Texas Education Agency hasn’t produced rules defining what makes an out-of-state charter “high performing,” but Williams said TEA would release a proposal this Friday.
Williams also said his decision wouldn’t set a precedent. “This was a one-time deal and it will never happen again,” he told the board. Great Hearts, he explained, already had a charter to open schools in San Antonio, and under the new law, which went into effect on Sept. 1, the board has no authority over charter expansions. For Great Hearts to expand, Williams waived a requirement that schools be open for four years before adding new campuses.
But Williams’ decision has been so contentious not only because of the procedural issues, but because education leaders question whether Great Hearts—a chain of 19 schools in the Phoenix area (as of this fall), all but one of them in the suburbs outside the city—can replicate its program for Texas students.
Great Hearts advertises SAT scores hundreds of points above the national average, glowing college attendance rates and an “A” rating from the state for most of its schools. Williams told the board this morning that Great Hearts’ track record suggested they clearly fit the bill for a “high performing” network. But critics—like those who rallied to keep the chain from expanding into Nashville—say Great Hearts gets those results because its student body reflects the white, affluent neighborhoods where it opens. None of Great Hearts Arizona’s 7,617 students are classified as “English language learners,” according to the Arizona Department of Education, and just two of its schools have any students on free or reduced lunches—a common shorthand measure of student poverty.
Roberto Gutierrez, who leads Great Hearts’ nationwide growth efforts, said in a statement that they’re committed to serving a diverse student body in Texas. “Our first campus in central San Antonio is in a neighborhood that is more than 61% Hispanic/Latino,” Gutierrez wrote. Great Hearts’ school in that city is set to open this fall on two campuses in the Monte Vista neighborhood near Trinity University. “The Dallas and Irving neighborhoods we seek to serve are also diverse, urban communities full of parents and students who support these new public school offerings for excellence.” They’re still looking for a campus in Old East Dallas, Oak Cliff or downtown Dallas.
Speaking to the board this morning, Williams allowed that in Arizona, “the bulk of [Great Hearts’ students] are white and probably not poor.” But he said it’s wrong to hold that against them. “There is nothing in Texas law, and nothing in the public policy of this state, that says that one cannot have a charter, or an expansion amendment, that serves kids who are not poor and who are not minority. Quite frankly, I think the latter part would be against the law. … State law doesn’t say that you can only have charters for brown, poor and black kids.”